Rattle, Berlin Phil Explore Drama In Symphonic Music

Simon Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in works by Rihm, Ligeti, and Mahler.
By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN – All great instrumental music has theatrical dimensions, from the symphonies of Joseph Haydn to the absurdist compositions of Mauricio Kagel. Even in Wolfgang Rihm’s five-minute Gruß-Moment 2, premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic on Feb.12, the low strings have an operatic quality as they eclipse a quartet of horns with a craggy but sensuous melody.

Wolfgang Rihm’s ‘Gruß-Moment 2’ received its premiere.

Both in the work’s lyric contours and its economic, carefully chosen timbres, Rihm makes clear that he is writing in memory of the late Pierre Boulez. Commissioned by Sir Simon Rattle as part of a series of “musical tapas,” or short musical appetizers, the composition is a sequel to Gruß-Moment, unveiled at the Lucerne Festival in the summer of 2015 during celebrations of Boulez’s 90th birthday.

Also five minutes in length, the first work is rich in timbral invention, with pointillist textures that ricochet from string quartet to full-scale orchestra. Gruß-Moment 2, however, packs so much into 11 pages that some musical ideas have the potential to germinate into a more substantial work.

Solemn strings imply a sense of mourning for Boulez, a figure who revolutionized concert life as he brought serialism into the next era. But the work takes on a momentum that is all Rihm, driven by a basic tension between calm and violence, stasis and chaos.

The final passage, Subito con mosso, tempestuoso, opens with warbling flutes punctured by percussion and plucked harp until a solo oboe takes over in counterpoint with English horn. They are joined by trombone in a gentle trio, but it comes abruptly to an end with a deathly, whispering timpani roll.

Such subtleties of timbre are also essential elements in Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, which followed with Patricia Kopatchinskaja as a soloist. If her entrance barefoot, in a ripped tailcoat exposing her shoulder, at first seemed gratuitously provocative, the glassy, hushed chords of the opening measures left no question that she was committed to the music with every cell of her body.

The physicality of her playing pulled the members of the Philharmonic in tow, in particular the evening’s concertmaster, Daniel Stabrawa. Kopatchinskaja brought to life both the violent struggle and sardonic humor of the concerto, from the plucked strings with which the soloist responds to taunting lotus flutes in the second movement, to squealing harmonics which later assert themselves over the horns.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja played the Ligeti Violin Concerto. (Marco Borggreve)

But it was not until the cadenza, conceived by Kopatchinskaja herself, that the violin’s fearless theatricality came to the surface. In a kind of comic sketch, she watched in awe when Rattle walked offstage with his arms folded as she withdrew from electric tremoli into a brittle, wooden timbre.

Following a kind of schizophrenic solo passage, the violin’s violent pizzicato set off mayhem in the chamber orchestra, at which point Rattle reappeared in the percussion section to conduct the final measures. After the piece ended, the musicians held their final poses in a freeze frame which made the dramatic arc all the more convincing.

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was a suitable yet problematic choice for the second half of the program because hearing it after the Rihm and Ligeti caused the ear to notice intricacies of scoring and ironic twists on convention, and the orchestra’s interpretation was not compelling enough to carry the listener through an epic sweep of ideas that fills nearly an hour of music.

Already in the opening bars, there lacked elasticity of tempo in the transition from the staccato flutes and sleigh-like bells to the rising, leisurely violin melody. The interpretation became more organic and spirited toward the end of the movement, however, with particularly elegant playing in the low strings.

And yet the longing melody of the slow movement, Ruhevoll, was not heartbreaking, but instead resembled a marble sculpture that takes shape before the eyes, beautiful but cold to the touch. The final movement brought forth more convincing drama, the foreboding oboe conveying a sense of  an impending apocalypse which the strings try to resist.

If the music rises into a heavenly kingdom with the brass and timpani fanfare that ushers in the soprano, Camilla Tilling, the wistful strings seem to imply that, sadly, it doesn’t exist. Tilling’s pure timbre captured the childlike, non-ironic quality that Mahler indicated (“Mit kindlich heiterem Ausdruck; durchaus ohne Parodie!”), blending skillfully with the orchestra and judiciously coloring her lines with full vibrato.

Her expression was a bit devout toward the end, however, illustrating heavenly life without the sense of spiritual ambivalence which Mahler, despite himself, expresses so clearly throughout the symphony. The playfulness of the final movement at times had dangerous dimensions, finding only temporary resolution in the final words of the English horn and harp.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.